The West Memphis Three Trials: 1994

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The West Memphis Three Trials: 1994

Defendants: Damien Wayne Echols, Charles Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley
Crimes Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Val P. Price, Scott Davidson, Daniel Stidham
Chief Prosecutors: Brent Davis, John Fogleman
Judge: David Burnett
Place: Jonesboro, Arkansas
Date of Trial: January-April 1994
Verdict: Guilty
Sentences: Echols: Death by lethal injection; Baldwin and Misskelley: life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The conviction of three teenage boys for the sadistic murder of three eight-year-old boys in what the prosecution claimed was a Satanic ritual received national attention largely as a result of a prize-winning documentary film which contributed to doubts about the correctness of the verdict.

In the early afternoon of May 6, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found in a drainage ditch in an area known as Robin Hood Hills, near West Memphis, Arkansas. James Moore, Steven Branch, and Christopher Byers had been last seen playing together in the late afternoon of the previous day. A search had begun in the late evening and had gone on through most of the night. Their bodies were naked and their hands were bound to their feet with shoelaces. Moore and Branch both died from head injuries and drowning. Byers had been more extensively injured and his genitals had been torn or cut off. He had died from a variety of head injuries and from loss of blood, and had been dead before being put in the ditch.

Damien Echols immediately became a suspect in the eyes of the investigators, apparently because he was suggested to them by a juvenile officer, Steve Jones. Echols was 18 years old, and had had a disturbed childhood; although a somewhat isolated young man, he had called attention to himself in his small community by for shoulder-length hair and his penchant for dressing in black, and for liking heavy metal rock bands. Two days after the discovery of the bodies Echols was interviewed by the police. During this interview, he told them that he knew that one of the three boys had been more severely injured than the others. Since this information had not been officially released, police would later claim that only the killer could have known this. However, no charges were pressed at this time.

The Confession of Jessie Misskelley

Early in June police questioned a 17-year-old acquaintance of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley. Reports of the length of the interrogation vary from two hours to 12 hours, but it is not disputed that the interrogation was conducted without the presence of counsel, and without any waiver of Miranda rights having been obtained. No record of the interrogation was kept, except for a short recording of the confession that Misskelley gave at the end of it. Misskelley admitted having killed the three boys and implicated Damien Echols and a third boy, 17-year-old Charles Jason Baldwin. This confession, although it contained several factual errors relating to the circumstances of the crime, would constitute the most important evidence against the three teenagers, all of whom were charged with the murders.

Misskelley's trial was separated from the other two, and he was tried first, in January 1994. The prosecution's case relied solely upon his confession. Daniel Stidham, counsel for Misskelley, moved to have the confession held inadmissible, but Judge David Burnett ruled that the confession was voluntary and admissible. Professor Richard Ofsche of the University of California at Berkeley was called as an expert witness on coerced confessions after the judge's ruling, but was not allowed to present all of his prepared testimony as to why he believed the confession was probably coerced. The defense's second expert witness on police interrogation and the use of lie detector tests was also only allowed to give part of his prepared testimony. The jury found Misskelley guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was offered a reduced punishment if he would agree to testify against the other two, but he refused and was sentenced to life plus 40 years in prison.

The Trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin

The trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin began on February 22, 1994, also before Judge Burnett. The prosecution again relied heavily on Jessie Misskelley's confession, but they also went to considerable lengths to try to establish that the murders were part of an occult sacrificial ritual led by Echols. Books had been found at his home in which spells had been written, and pentagrams and upside down crosses had been drawn. Books had also been found indicating an interest in neopagan religions and the history of witchcraft. Attention was drawn to his interest in heavy metal rock music and his liking of black T-shirts with occult designs. Dr. Dale Griffis testified for the prosecution as an expert witness on occult killings. He presented 11 aspects of the murders which he felt indicated that the killings were Satanic in nature. These aspects included such things as the facts that three eight-year-old boys were killed and their bodies found in water, and water and the numbers three and eight have mystic significance in Satanic cults.

A mother and daughter testified to having seen Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin together in a car on the night of May 5, and to seeing Echols and his girlfriend later in the evening walking near a truck stop not far from where the bodies were found. A 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl testified that at a softball game they had overheard Damien Echols say, "I killed the three little boys and before I turn myself in I'm going to kill two more and I already have one of them picked out." Under cross-examination by Val Price, the public defender assigned by the court to represent Echols, the girls admitted that the game was very noisy, and they could not recall anything else they had overheard during it. A young addict, Michael Carson, who had met Baldwin when they were both being held in detention, testified that Baldwin had admitted to him that he had killed the boys. A hunting knife which could have been the murder weapon, was recovered from a lake behind Baldwin's home. Fibers similar to some found on the victims' clothing (which had been discovered near the bodies) had been located in Echols's home, but they were apparently from a widely used fabric. Other than this, no physical evidence was introduced that would link the three accused to the victims.

On April 18, both were found guilty of three counts of capital murder. The following day Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection, and Baldwin, who was just 16 at the time of the murders, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Appeals Fail

Lengthy appeals were filed citing numerous points of law relating to both the conduct of the investigation and the trial, but in 1996 the Supreme Court of Arkansas, in separate opinions, upheld first the Misskelley conviction and then those of Echols and Baldwin. Two years later a hearing was granted in the case of Echols on a motion for a new trial. Ed Mallet, who now represented Echols, argued that Echols had received ineffective counsel during his original trial. This was partly because of the inexperience of the court-appointed attorney in trying cases of this sort, partly because of the lack of resources provided by the court to the defense for the securing of expert witnesses, but also because the defense counsel had entered into a financial arrangement with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the producer/directors of a documentary film made for the Home Box Office network (HBO). This film was first shown on HBO in June 1996. Reviewers of the film commented on the unusual access that the filmmakers were given to the trial preparation process.

Also raised in the motion for the hearing on a new trial was the fact that a forensic scientist, Brent E. Turvey, had identified from autopsy photographs what he considered to be human bite marks on the face of Steve Branch. Mouth impressions had been taken of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, and at the hearing Dr. Thomas David, a forensic odontologist, testified that in his opinion none of the three youths had made the bite mark wounds. The hearing was held before Judge Burnett, who had presided over the original trial. He declined to recuse himself, and ruled against the motion for a new trial. Damien Echols is still under sentence of death, and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are serving their prison terms.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Berlinger, Joe, and Bruce Sinofsky. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Cabin Fever distributors, 1997. Videocassette. (Berlinger and Sinofsky made a sequel, Paradise Lost: Revisited, which was shown on HBO in March 2000.) This website is maintained by supporters of the West Memphis Three, but it includes links to extensive excerpts from the transcripts of the original trial and the complete text of the Arkansas Supreme Court rulings.

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